Objectivity and ambivalence: The case of the Apollo scientists

Last week, a friend sent me this quote from a climate change opinion letter. 

“While we may or may not be correct on any scientific topic, the only pertinent arguments are real scientific arguments involving honest evidence. The only satisfactory outcome is a completely objective analysis.”

She said she was happy to see such a strong statment about the differences between science and politics, but I’m not sure I agree with her. [i]

When discussing controversial issues like climate change and MMR, the boundary between scientific and non-scientific claims is always an important part of the conversation. Most often that boundary is defined by objectivity. The work of scientists is usually portrayed as completely objective, in contrast to those who would rely on emotional, religious, or political reasoning. When science is portrayed this way, though, any perceived lack of objectivity can become a weakness – a sign that science should not believed. And while this black and white distinction is mostly a rhetorical choice, it presents a problem. The climate gate emails, for example, made people uncomfortable because the scientists were acting in ways that didn’t seem completely objective. And if they aren’t totally objective, is there something wrong with their science?

Not necessarily. Consider this comment from a scientist involved in one of the most celebrated and iconic American scientific endeavours: “The emotionally disinterested scientist is a myth. Even if there were such a being, he probably wouldn’t be worth much as a scientist” Calvin Johnson[ii], Apollo mission scientist.

Dr. Johnson’s comments were made during a time that is often seen as a golden age for science. Following World War II, it had gained an important place in public dialogue. In North America, and especially in the United States, scientists were no longer thought of as solitary geniuses working on esoteric projects, but instead as elite citizens making contributions to industry and defence. This was the time of the Sputnik moment, inspiring passion for science and science education. This enthusiasm for science and scientists also created curiosity and even sometimes distrust: who were scientists, what exactly did they do and what made them different from others?

Robert K. Merton, a sociologist interested social roles and structures, was among the first to try to answer these questions. As a result, he is often credited as the first sociologist of science. In The normative structure of science, originally published in 1942,[iii] Merton created a set of norms and ideals that characterized scientists and their work, a list that established objectivity as the defining characteristic of science.

Merton depicted these objective scientists as emotionally disinterested in their work. They were expected to gain satisfaction from serving the scientific community not from seeing their hypotheses supported. They should be impersonal about making decisions, thinking only about the strength of the evidence and not about the personalities or affiliations of the people involved. They were also expected to share their results openly with a sense of communalism and never to work in secrecy.  These norms were taken up enthusiastically in science education and public writing about science. To this day when people describe scientists, this is what they usually say – scientists and non-scientists alike.

What is often forgotten, though, is that Merton went on to question whether these norms were able to fully capture researchers’ work and values. He wondered if, in the real world of scientists, these ideals were balance by equally important counter-ideals. In other words, he wondered if sometimes the exact opposite of objectivity was necessary. Dr. Johnson seems to be saying the same thing.

Taking inspiration from Merton, Ian Mitroff from the University of Pittsburgh decided to explore the idea of counter-norms with one of the most recognizable groups of mid-century scientists – the physicists, geologists and chemists of the Apollo moon missions. Based on interviews he conducted between Apollo missions 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, including one with Dr. Johnson, Mitroff wrote a fascinating description of the ambivalence that scientists held towards Merton’s ideals. They were ambivalent in the strict sense of having two competing views. Like Merton, they acknowledged the importance of working from objective evidence and contributing to the scientific community. But Mitroff also illustrates, through the scientists’ own words, the passion, bitterness, competitiveness and intensity of doing science and the value that the researchers placed on these characteristics.

At the beginning of the Apollo program the structure and geology of the moon remained largely unknown. None of the scientists were sure exactly what would be found in the samples that astronauts would bring back with them. Based on Merton’s initial norms then, we might imagine a patient team of scientists waiting for samples before committing to any particular view of the moon’s geology. The scientists, however, described themselves and their colleagues much differently.

“Xavier is so committed to the idea that the moon is [X][iv]” said one researcher, “that you could literally take the moon apart piece by piece, ship it back to Earth, reassemble it in Xavier’s backyard…and he would still continue to believe that the moon is [X]. His belief in [X] is unshakable. He refuses to listen to reason or to evidence. He’s so hopped up on the idea of [X] that I think he’s unbalanced.”

This might seem like a description of an outsider – a scientist who has broken the rules of science and is being rejected by his peers for his lack of objectivity (and possible imbalance!). The surprising thing, though, is that the three scientists perceived by their peers as the most committed to their hypotheses (Xavier included) were also judged by their peers to be among the most outstanding scientists participating in the program. They were the ones who drove the field forward and created genuinely new and exciting ideas.

This surprising judgment shouldn’t be taken to mean that scientists have no use for data or evidence. On the contrary, what Mitroff saw in the scientists was that they recognized the importance of a constant back and forth negotiation between objectivity and subjectivity. Merton’s norms weren’t false, they were just only one side of the coin. Scientists ought be objective and convinced by evidence but they also must be driven by personal commitment and willingness to argue for a possibly unsupported position. In his interview with Mitroff, Dr. Albert Masters contended that without personal commitment, science could not be done.

“Commitment,” said Masters, “even extreme commitment such as bias, has a role to play in science and it can serve science well. Part of the business [of science] is to sift the evidence and to come to the right conclusions, and to do this you must have people who argue for both sides of the evidence. This is the only way in which we can straighten the situation out. I wouldn’t like scientists to be without bias since a lot of the sides of the argument would never be presented. We must be emotionally committed to the things we do energetically. No one is able to do anything with liberal energy if there is no emotion connected with it.”

Masters was not alone in his assessment. Dr. Gordon Hereford, another Apollo scientist, went further, saying that only simplistic views of science can leave out passion and commitment to ideas. “You can’t understand science in terms of the simple-minded articles that appear in the journals” Hereford argued, “Science is an intensely personal enterprise. Every scientific idea needs a personal representative who will defend and nourish that idea so that it doesn’t suffer premature death. Most people don’t think of science in this way but that’s because the image they have of science only applies to the simplest, and for that reason almost non-existent, ideal cases where the evidence is clear-cut and it’s not a matter of scientists with different shades of opinion.”

Based on these interviews Mitroff’s conclusion was that science is fundamentally ambivalent about objectivity, not ambivalent as in undecided but instead meaning that the community holds simultaneously conflicting views about it. Objectivity and reliance on evidence are essential but so are personal commitment and bias, sometimes in the face of insufficient or contradictory evidence.

This ambivalence makes it challenging to defend science by saying things like “The only satisfactory outcome is a completely objective analysis.” When absolute objectivity is the only way that science is described, not only does that represent an incomplete picture, it also sets up an inevitable crisis when researchers are shown to be passionate, driven and subjective. This is important to keep in mind when considering how science and scientists are described to students and when science is defended and challenged in the public sphere. Instead of focusing on only objectivity, it is crucial to acknowledge the important role that personal commitment, bias and passion play in science. These characteristics are essential to science not a perversion of it. This is a challenging task but I would propose that understanding of science, scientists and contentious scientific issues will be the better for it.

So, what might it look like in science communication? How might this ambivalence be explained as a strength rather than a weakness?

[i] The letter happened to be from someone who is vocal in disagreeing with global climate change. The substance of the letter isn’t the part that I’m interested in though, it’s the claim to objectivity.

[ii] Mitroff, I.I. (1974). Norms and counter-norms in a select group of Apollo Moon scientists: A case study in the ambivalence of scientists. American Sociological Review, 39, 579-595. In Mitroff’s original paper, as was customary at the time, the individuals are noted only by letters (e.g., Scientist C). For readability, I have chosen to update this to the more contemporary practice (in my field) of naming individuals with pseudonyms. The names begin with the same letters that Mitroff used to identify them. For example, Calvin Johnson is Mitroff’s Scientist C.

[iii] Merton, R.K. (1942). The Normative Structure of Science In: Robert King Merton (1973). The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[iv] For confidentially, the exact hypothesis that Xavier was committed to was removed by Mitroff. X was used as a placeholder to represent some particular belief about the moon.

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  1. Thank you for this post! I couldn’t help thinking about what Helen Longino says in her book “Science as social knowledge” (subtitle: “Values and objectivity in scientific enquiry”) — namely that background assumptions are omnipresent in science and should be acknowledged rather than hidden. Feminist epistemology and philosophy of science went a long way along that road (for more information, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-epistemology/ ).

    • Hi Enro – Yes, this definitely has connections to Longino’s and other’s views of social knowledge. I see it being connected to Polanyi’s personal knowledge as well.
      Thanks for reading!

  2. steveel

     /  March 15, 2011

    Last night my wife came home dancing, “I got a paper published! I got a paper published!” Then she stopped dancing and took the All-Star Wrestler I-conquered pose with a mighty bicep bulging “YEAH!!!!”

    Pure objectivity….. right.

    Scientists are people, so its to be expected that ego, passion, love, jealousy, pride, bitterness whatever….all the things that drive any human endeavor sometimes drive science. You gotta ask a question. Form a hypothesis. Design a study. Get it funded. Execute it. Interpret and publish the results.

    What I expect of scientists is that the part they say is true, and that they don’t bury conflicting data. They can be just as human as they like in all other respects. I’d summarize like this:

    Who’s more likely to produce interesting results, an honest passionless flatworm, or an honest tasmanian devil?

    (Thank god I married the latter, but don’t tell her I said it quite that way, ok?)

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